Small Upheaval in Israel
Eyes on Peretz. Can he do it?
ISRAELI politics have experienced a little upheaval in what veteran journalist, former knesset member and still active peace campaigner Uri Avnery has greeted as "a great miracle".
Given a choice between a tired old Establishment figure, the Nobel peace prize-winning so-called technocrat who took Israel down the (everybody)dead-end nuclear road, Shimon Peres; and a Moroccan-born outsider who led workers' strikes, and calls for peace with the Palestinians, members of the Labour Party have voted for the latter.
Avnery says the choice of Amir Peretz goes beyond party politics. "It may well change the future of the country". He recalls a gathering shortly after the 1982 Lebanon war when peaceniks discussed creating a new political party.
"I said that we would not succeed in effecting a real change if we did not reach the Eastern Jewish public. To this community, the peace camp looks like an Ashkenazi affair, belonging to the upper socio-economic strata. In our demonstrations, one hardly sees any Eastern faces. We have failed to reach half the Israeli population. As long as this situation prevails, there will be no peace".
To the unenlightened in Israeli ethno-geography, it should be explained that easterners, Misrahim, refers to Jews from non-European, chiefly Arab backgrounds, previously often referred to inaccurately as Sefardim (i.e. of Spanish background. There is some overlap, but they're not the same). So though Morocco is of course west of Israel, and most Israeli leaders' families hail like mine from eastern Europe, a Jew from the Maghreb (west in Arabic), i.e.North Africa in English, is an Easterner. You got that?
When people like the Peretz family arrived in the new State of Israel in the 1950s, they were welcomed as the miraculously ingathered exiles, or as a source of cheap labour to replace the Arabs. Regardless of what they had done before -and many were skilled craftsmen or professionals - they must be knocked into shape and know their place. My friend Naim Giladi recalled Jews from Iraq who had bathed and donned their best clothes for this great alyah (going up to Israel, or to an honour in the synagogue), stepping off the plane and being sprayed with DDT by waiting Jewish Agency officials.
(Naim, a one-time Zionist youth underground worker in Iraq who went on to help form Israel's radical Black Panthers has also given a lot of thought and research to how the Iraqi Jews were got to Israel, but that is another matter).
Others tell of the time some Moroccan immigrants were driven out to the desert in the back of a lorry and told to get out and build themselves a new town. When they refused, the driver operated his tipper mechanism and dumped them like a load of sand, or worse.
For masses of immigrants in the early years, there were ma'aborot, tented camps, followed by decades in inner city slums or so-called "development towns" - like "developing countries" a euphemism. Meanwhile in the schools their kids were taught that Arab culture, and therefore their parents, were inferior and to be despised. (By way of comparison, it soon emerged that there were more Jews of Maghrebi origin in the Sorbonne than in all of Israel's universities).
During most of the years, Labour was in government, and identified with the Ashkenazi (European) Establishment. The Ashkenazim seemed to have all the best jobs and privileges, even as they used the language and symbols of idealism and egalitarianism. You could see the Red Flag or May day posters on a kibbutz-owned factory where you were only hired labour. And "Hyeh Meturgan", get organised, which sounds like a union slogan, had come to mean "look after number one", which might also mean have the right friends and contacts -"protektzia". Meanwhile Labour leaders and the cultural establishment made little secret of their distaste for the Easterners and wish to see more European immigrants.
The result was twofold. The Misrahim, feeling outsiders even as they became a majority, voted largely for the right-wing Likud, whose demagogues posed as rebels even after taking government.(Another party to gain their support later was Shas, which combined religious orthodoxy with affected social welfare concern - not unlike Hamas). Like poor whites elsewhere the eastern Jews became keenest in affirming their national status - "I may be poor but at least I'm not an Arab".
Some of these social underdogs were able to raise themselves,with Arab and then migrant labour replacing them on the lower rungs, and changes in government. David Levi made it from building worker to contractor and Likud Housing Minister. But such advances for individuals were less real than some commentators suggested for the whole social category. Most of the Misrahim remain working class, many live below the poverty line, and they are over-represented in the prisons. David Levi had a shock when he went to open a new settlement in the occupied West Bank and was mobbed by demonstrating workers who'd travelled from Israeli "development towns" to protest unemployment.
Nor was the chauvinism always as deep and strong as appeared. When Sadat came to Jerusalem, thousands of mainly misrahi, working-class Jews came out in enthusiasm. As one remarked "Now we don't have to turn down the radio when listening to Um Khaltoum". (popular singer on Radio Cairo).
There has not been great enthusiasm from the Misrahi Jews for the right-wing settler movements. But when bombs go off in a market place or crowded bus, people may not be in the mood to listen to arguments about the occupation, or against the Wall, they support the Strong Man who will "teach them a lesson".
Some have striven against the current. The Black Panther party, in the 1970s, deliberately choosing a name to upset Golda Meir, mobilised slum youth in demonstrations and eventually returned Charlie Biton to the Knesset. In its train came campaigning groups linking social and cultural equality with peace. They remained small, and received little attention from the mainly Ashkenazi, and comfortably middle class peace camp. I've heard even socialist Israelis, educated people, remark almost complacently that "In Israel the working class is with the Right",not seeming to reflect that if so, their own political existence had little point. (On the other hand there have been a few who pretended Israel was just another capitalist country, as though its role as oppressor and internal complexities were not their concern. Not a way of tackling reality or relating to people).
But meanwhile new figures, representing dissatisfied workers,often from Misrahi background, were appearing in the Histadrut, Israel's once powerful but tame labour federation, combining unions, co-operatives and welfare institutions. As the movement lost its privileges to political changes, economic "liberalism", privatisation and attacks on workers' welfare and conditions, it has been forced to start behaving like a workers' movement, no longer a "partner" to government or career ladder for bureaucracy. Many would say it is still not effective as a fighting force (not that our unions here are much better).
Not restricting himself to an "economist" agenda, Peretz sought ways to help the poor as consumers. As mayor of Sderot, a development town in the northern Negev, he brought new work and construction. As Histadrut leader he promoted Arab members and also signed the first agreement with the Palestinian General Federation of Trade Unions, including their right to represent and receive dues from Palestinians working in Israel. Above all, he called for an end to the occupation, and for Palestinian statehood.
Invited to the rally commemorating murdered Labour leader Yitzhak Rabin (at the behest of Rabin's daughter, and to the displeasure of defeated rival Peres), Peretz declared: "Ten years on, and the violence is still very much with us, Yitzhak. The country is full of violence. We have not succeeded in isolating it. It has spread beyond the areas of confrontation with the Palestinians, it has become rooted among us. (...) If we had left the Territories, stopped the violence which issues from there at its source, we would have also overcome the violence in our midst".
Peretz is certainly no revolutionary. His previous venture into politics was called the One Nation party. But by linking the social needs of Israel's working people, and the malaise of Israeli society, to the need for a real peace with the Palestinians; and by bringing the real voice of the "Easterners" to front-stage of politics, he may turn over Israel's upside-down politics on to its feet. Even if he fails, he may encourage others to follow.
His first job, if he sticks to what he promised, will be to pull Labour out of Ariel Sharon's government and hopefully bring down the Likud government. As Uri Avnery says, it is not yet time for dancing in the streets. But it is a step in the right direction. He rejoices "Six weeks before Hanukkah, the Jewish festival with the ancient adage 'A Great Miracle Has Happened Here', we have some reason to be happy". Let us hope so.